The senior class from the Florida high school where 17 people died in February’s gun massacre have held a touching graduation ceremony focused on honouring four senior students slain in the attack.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School presented diplomas to the families of Nicholas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver, Meadow Pollack, and Carmen Schentrup at the event on Monday (AEST).
Surprise commencement speaker Jimmy Fallon urged the graduates to move forward and “don’t let anything stop you” in a video address.
The ceremony for the 784 members of the Class of 2018 was held at the BB&T Centre, where the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers play. It was moved to the arena to accommodate the expected large crowd.
The Broward School District kept the event private. Only invited guests were admitted, and the media was barred from inside the arena.
Fourteen students and three staff members died in the February 14 attack.
Principal Ty Thompson underscored the honours for the dead students, tweeting: “Remember those not with us, and celebrate all the successes the class of 2018 has brought to the community and the world!”
Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, offered similar a similar sentiment in his address, saying: “You are not just the future – you are the present. Keep changing the world. Keep making us proud.”
“First thing is this: when something feels hard, remember that it gets better. Choose to move forward. Don’t let anything stop you.” he adding before thanking them for their bravery and activism.
Former Stoneman Douglas student, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, is charged with their deaths and the wounding of 17. His lawyers have said he will plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Some parents of slain students said they would not attend graduation.
Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack, said he’s too emotionally spent to attend the ceremony.
Meadow’s brother, boyfriend and cousins were to accept her diploma. Her brother, Hunter Pollack, made his feelings about the day known on Twitter.
“Today is the day my sister has been waiting for. Graduation where she would’ve been getting her diploma and be on her way to attend college. This is a sad day, as I will be walking stage to get her diploma for her,” his post says.
Andrew Pollack has been an outspoken critic of school and law enforcement officials, saying they failed to protect his daughter and the others, but that’s not why he’s staying away.
“It has nothing to do with them,” Pollack told The Associated Press by phone Sunday. “I’ve just been dead inside since February 14.”
Instead, he’s headed to central Florida where this week he will address the armed guards one district has hired for its schools.
As families arrived for the ceremony, gunshots from a nearby public shooting range could be heard echoing over the parking lot.